It is not by accident that I like living in Greece, A big part of it is I have an appreciation for the Eastern Orthodox Church. I own two true icons (“written” i.e. painted directly on wood, and not just photo-reproduced and pasted on). I took a course on the theology of icons when I was in Boston fifteen years ago. I love walking into Orthodox churches, reverencing the icons, lighting a candle, and saying a prayer. When I have attended Orthodox liturgies I enjoy trying to figure out what is happening. I am always impressed with the chanting of the cantors. I have studied Orthodox authors from the Syrian John of Damascus to the Russian Sergius Bulgakov. I pray using the Jesus Prayer, an Orthodox method developed on Mount Athos centuries ago. I appreciate their emphasis upon Trinitarian theology. There are a number of reasons as to why I would never seek admission to the Orthodox communion (their stance on the ordination of women being one), but I am an outsider who approves of much of what he sees.
It is a good thing I like the Orthodox church, because it is everywhere here. I can quite literally see one outside my window, and if I step outside I can see at least three more. Others are just hidden by buildings in the way. I find that this is pretty normal throughout the country. The Orthodox Church is established by law, and clergy are on the government payroll. For over a thousand years to be Greek was to be Orthodox. After the Great Catastrophe of the 1921-1922 war between Greece and Turkey the population exchanges were based not on language but religion – thus Turkish speaking Orthodox Christians were expelled from Cappadocia, where their ancestors had lived for 3000 years, and likewise most Greek speaking Muslims were expelled from the mainland and islands like Crete. Every store and offivce seems to have a collection of icons. Orthodox holy days and traditions are part and parcel of Greek culture.
Orthodox clergy are inherently conservative and resist change – and as evidence of this remember that the flag of the Orthodox Church is the double-headed eagle of the late Roman Empire (known to us in the West as the Byzantine Empire), which ended in 1452. When the Orthodox of Anatolia were expelled from Turkey and arrived in Greece they castigated the churchmen here for adopting western styles of painting for icons – since the 1920s an older style of iconography has returned.
Although the bells of the local church ring every Sunday and holy day, relatively few lay Orthodox attend church. This is not unusual, for identity and piety are not always the same. Greece is among the most religious countries in Europe, based on beliefs, according to the Pew Research Center, but that doesn’t mean that they are always in church. Despite the fact that the Prime Minister is an avowed atheist and was the first Greek PM not to take his vows of office on the gospels, the position of the Orthodox Church in Greece seems secure.
However, I wonder. The present has a habit of rapidly unravelling. I see four possible futures.
In the first, things stay much the same. There is some tinkering with the status quo, but Greece neither becomes more pious nor less so, and the Church of Greece retains its privileged situation.
The second would be the most worrying. It might happen if a more conservative government is elected, one which leads the country down an anti-democratic route. This is what Vladimir Putin has done in Russia, and he has had the support of the Russian Orthodox Church in doing so. In Greece something like this has happened in the past, at least twice, first, with the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas from 1936 to 1941, and, second, with the military junta of 1967-1974. In both cases, the few explicitly opposed leaders in the Orthodox Church were removed and the institution as a whole became, at best, neutral, and at worst, complicit with the dictatorship. Although Greek society seems to be a solid liberal democracy since democracy was restored in 1974, and since it joined the European Community (now the European Union) in 1981, it is not impossible that there could be a reactionary movement that somehow gains power in the complicated electoral system, and then proceeds to eradicate its opponents (yes, I’m thinking of Golden Dawn) . I cannot help but think that it would try to enlist the Church as an ally. I do not see this as probable trajectory into the future, but then I did not think that the US would elect Trump.
A third possibility is that Greece goes the way of Catholicism in Quebec. In Quebec in the 1950s some 80% of the Catholic affiliated population were in church every Sunday. The provincial government did not even have ministries of health or education, as they left those to the churches. Then in the 1960s Quebec nationalism arose in La Revolution Tranquille. In the 1960s and ’70s church attendance dropped like a rock to its present 5%. The government secularized itself, created a modern welfare state, and ignored the church leadership as it passed legislation. Quebec is now the most secular of the ten provinces. We now see, in reaction to the abuses of the Catholic Church in Ireland, a similar thing taking place in the Republic there, as influence wanes and attendance drops. I see no reason why a similar thing could not happen here in Greece. The Constitution could be amended. The clergy could be cut off from the government payroll and left to fend for themselves by offerings from their supporters, as is the case in much of the Western world. Just as Thomas Cromwell seized the lands of the monasteries in England in the 1530s on behalf of King Henry VIII, and just as the French Republic took the properties of the Catholic Church in the 1790s, so a bold political leadership could nationalize the lands and use them to pay down debt or ramp up the economy. Religious privileges could be limited, and schools could move from the teaching of Orthodox religion to teaching about all religions. While I suspect that this would not happen in Greece all at once, I could see this happening slowly over several decades.
The fourth possibility is what is happening in Central America and parts of South America (especially Brazil). What was once virtually a Catholic monopoly has now been transformed into a multi-denominational landscape. In particular, the evangelical and charismatic churches have made serious inroads. Unlike the US, this is not necessarily correlated with the political spectrum, for just as the Roman Catholic church has its conservative and socialist wings, so do the new churches. Interestingly, this has forced the Catholic Church in Latin America to up its game, and become more lively and attractive. Could this happen here in Greece? While the government of Greece makes it challenging for new churches, it is not impossible. I suspect the Orthodox Church of Greece would fight hard to retain its privilege, but it is hard in a liberal democracy to stop people voting with their feet.
It is undoubtedly a bit presumptuous for a non-Orthodox non-Greek who has only been in Greece for a little over three months to comment on such affairs. However, it is sometimes helpful for folks to have an outsider’s first impressions, and it is in this spirit I offer them. I welcome any responses, corrections, and admonitions, and where I have gone wrong I pray forgiveness.